Critical natural gas challenges, including flaring of associated gas and waterless hydraulic fracturing (fracking) are among the research endeavors that General Electric Corp. (GE) plans to address with a $10 billion research program through 2020.

The investment renews GE's "ecomagination" program, which was unveiled in 2005 and was a commitment along with partners to finding unique ways to solve business issues.

"There’s efficiency and economics," said CEO Jeff Immelt. "We don't think you have to give up one to get the other."

The GE Oil & Gas segment is the company's fastest growing business and is quickly becoming a top equipment and services provider. Last year the GE unit paid $3.3 billion to buy Lufkin Industries Inc., which provides artificial lift technologies for the U.S. energy industry (see Daily GPI, April 9, 2013).

GE's "ecomagination is one of our most successful cross-company business initiatives," said Immelt. "Bold investments in ecomagination research and development have resulted in strong returns for shareholders and improved cost and emissions savings for our customers."

Two of GE's latest collaborations address unique natural gas challenges: the economics of carbon dioxide (CO2) fracking, and flare gas reduction and use.

In one collaboration, Statoil ASA and GE are working to determine whether CO2 may be used economically as an alternative to water, potentially reducing the amount needed to frack horizontal wells in unconventional drilling.

"While the use of CO2 to fracture shale rock formations occurs today, it is not an economically viable option for large-scale use due to its high costs," GE said. "The goal of GE and Statoil's new research collaboration is to evaluate whether a system can be designed to capture CO2 produced from emissions; reuse the CO2 to fracture rock formations; and then capture it again for re-use on the next well.

A second partnership has been formed with Ferus Natural Gas Fuels to reduce flaring of associated gas due to a lack of transportation and/or processing infrastructure. In another collaboration, previously flared gas would be captured, and natural gas liquids, such as propane and butane, removed to be sold. The remaining methane would be manufactured into compressed natural gas (CNG) using the CNG In-A-Box system created by GE Oil & Gas.

The CNG would be loaded onto one of Ferus' specially designed storage trailers, the "Last Mile Fueling System," for transport to the final point of use to, among other things, power field operations on remote wells, thereby replacing higher-cost and higher-emissions diesel fuel. The first commercial application of the Last Mile is working at a Statoil site in North Dakota.

To date, GE has invested $12 billion in ecomagination research and development (R&D) and is on track to meet the commitment of $15 billion through 2015, said Immelt. Most of the R&D is for energy-based development. In addition to natural gas technologies, GE is investing in renewable energy to reduce the cost and increase the output of GE wind turbines. It also is investing in power plants to innovate and advance solutions to increase efficiencies.

Since 2004 GE has reduced greenhouse gas emissions (GHG) by 34%; its freshwater use has been cut by 47% since 2006.

"Building off this success, GE is committing to reduce GHG emissions and freshwater use by 20% from the 2011 baseline, by 2020," Immelt said.

GE has been directing more capital to energy innovation over the past several years, particularly in the natural gas sector, as it expects gas to become a bigger piece of global energy demand (see Daily GPI, Oct. 21, 2013).

In early February Chevron Corp. and GE Oil & Gas allied to develop and commercialize oil and natural gas technologies for the industry, extending a partnership on flow analysis technology for wells (see Daily GPI, Feb. 3). The alliance leverages R&D from GE's recently launched Global Research Center, the first dedicated to oil and gas technology that is being built in Oklahoma City (see Daily GPI, April 4, 2013).